Book Review: “And Finally” by Henry Marsh
A Mortality Tale
It is possible to be both the examiner and examined. I can speak with firsthand experience of interviewing hundreds, if not thousands, of people during my career as a freelance journalist, but also can say that I found myself in the reserved role of interviewee when it came time to discuss my once-fledging fiction career. Henry Marsh knows of this duality well, too. The British neurosurgeon had operated on many patients during his career — removing cancer in many of them, but also failing to help some of them, too. However, as he recounts in his latest book, And Finally, he came to be — at the age of 70 — a patient himself not long after he retired from practice. It turns out it was discovered that he had prostate cancer: a disease which affects perhaps as many as one in seven elderly men, but usually progresses so slowly that they die from something else in the meantime. Thus, this book recounts his anxiety about the role change from physician to patient. He frets about the life he’s lived, and also worries that he’ll slide into dementia well before any cancer could kill him — not developing Alzheimer’s is something of an obsession for him, according to this volume.
However, And Finally is more than a plague journal of sorts. It works as the memoir of a man looking back on his life. Being a former neurosurgeon, Marsh waxes philosophically about his career and the successes and failures he encountered while, in a sense, playing God. Speaking of which, he offers his thoughts on the afterlife. That’s not all. He additionally talks about his fear that his second wife will succumb to COVID-19. He discusses building a doll house for his daughter that has been passed down to his granddaughters. Fairy tales that he has dreamt up for them take up some real estate here, too. All in all, this is a book that doesn’t have much of a plot — much of it is rather random. Instead, this is the story of a man coming to terms that he’s nearing the end of his life, whether or not his cancer kills him immediately, and And Finally can be read as a series of thoughts and possible regrets that Marsh has had as he came to terms with his mortality. And that means jotting things down as he thinks of things, certain that if he hesitates the thoughts he has will vanish forever.
This is one of those books that’s tough to review because the story presented is so personal and raw. Death is not an appealing business and Marsh even contemplates the legalities of doctor-assisted suicide as he grapples with his diagnosis. Thus, the inclination one has to approach a book such as this is to be as gentle and careful as possible. Thankfully, Marsh is the type of person who seems amiable and agreeable, which makes hearing from a so-called “Old Timer” rather refreshing. After all, most people of a certain age — particularly if that age is, oh, 20 — don’t think about dying and aren’t usually forced to confront the reality that, like it or not, there will come a day when we will all cease to exist on this planet. I found, though, that And Finally was Marsh tapping into a sort of fountain of youth. Think of it this way: whether or not Marsh has died upon the completion of this book (which I want to keep vague to not spoil anything for would-be readers), he will have still left behind a physical product that will form part of the legacy of his time here on earth. As I’ve come to learn, writing can be a form of immortality — who knows what family member some 100 or 200 years from now will search through the archives of their ancestors and discover written artifacts such as this book? (Or, in my case, this book review and others of its ilk. Along with some bad poetry and fiction of questionable quality, but let’s not go there.)
I suppose this goes a long way to say that And Finally is an interesting read. I’ll pause there. “Interesting” is an overused word that is a polite way of saying sometimes that one doesn’t know what they think of something that’s being presented to them. However, in my case, I’m using the word as literally as I can. While I have to admit that while some of the scientific-speak of this book — particularly around how the brain functions and human consciousness is realized — went above my pay grade, I did find myself compelled to keep reading anyway. Reading this book is a little like being a fly on the wall in your family doctor’s office after your ailment has been addressed and you’ve been sent on your way: the book does delve into how physicians treat their patients behind their backs and the things that they say to them to give them “false hope” and alleviate their fears in the face of some grim, if not unbearable, news. In that sense, you can probably see how I’m using the word “interesting” in its truest sense. While some may find this narrative to be rather disjointed in parts, as this book can read like a person having something of a one-sided conversation with himself, others, like myself, may find themselves being enchanted by a rather novel treatment of something everyone at some time is going to have to address: their death.
And Finally is therefore a celebration of life and knowledge. This is the narrative of a man who wants to put what he feels is important down on paper while he still has the chance. For that, we should all be appreciative. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch a professional within the top ranks of his profession admit his failings and mistakes, but also marvel at the sometimes wonderfulness of life. And Finally presents the rare opportunity to see someone interact with both ends of the spectrum when it comes to being the giver and the receiver. Thank God a book like this has been written, even if Marsh does have his doubts if one — sometimes including himself as one — exists. There’s something truly special about this one, and it’s, ultimately, magic.
Henry Marsh’s And Finally: Matters of Life and Death will be published by St. Martin’s Press on January 17, 2023.
Of course, if you like what you see, please recommend this piece (click on the clapping hands icon below) and share it with your followers.
Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org